Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
19 March 2012
Michael J.L. La Civita

In this 6 January 2010 photo, Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, blesses the congregation during a Divine Liturgy celebrating Christmas at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, Egypt. (photo: CNS/Asmaa Waguih, Reuters)

A lion of the universal church died on Saturday, 17 March.

Shenouda III, pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark, led some 15 million Coptic Orthodox Christians — most of whom live in Egypt — since his election in 1971.

Not since the earliest days of the Egyptian church has one man impacted the Christian community of the region more than Pope Shenouda III. Picking up where his predecessor, Pope Kyrillos VI (1959-1971), left off, Pope Shenouda III spearheaded a revival in catechesis, particularly among youth, that spawned a resurgence in monastic life, renewed liturgical life and stimulated theological learning and Scripture study.

The pope also ended centuries of near isolation of the Coptic Orthodox Church, strengthening relations with other churches with which it maintains full communion — the Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Malankara Syrian and Syriac Orthodox churches. He also reached out to other churches, particularly the Anglican, Byzantine Orthodox and Catholic churches. In May 1973, Pope Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI issued a joint statement that put to rest the Christological discord that divided the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches since the fifth century.

“He who is God eternal and invisible,” declared the popes, “became visible in the flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant. In him are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.”

Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself, predating Islam and the Arab invasion of the country by six centuries. Despite 15 centuries marked by periods of persecution and peace, the Coptic Orthodox Church (which today accounts for up to eight million of Egypt’s 80 million people) thrives. Churches are packed with young and old; ancient monasteries flourish with monks and nuns; social outreach programs touch the needy and catechetical programs instill values and a sense of identity for the young — who are increasingly emigrating to the West.

Pope Shenouda III responded by setting up jurisdictions and establishing hundreds of parishes throughout Europe, North America and Oceania. Today, perhaps as many as four million Copt Orthodox Christians live outside Egypt, all of whom today are joining with their families back home in mourning the death of their beloved papa.

Tags: Egypt Patriarchs Coptic Christians Coptic Orthodox Church Monasticism

1 March 2012
Michael J.L. La Civita

Mar Musa, named after St. Moses of Ethiopia, is an ancient Syriac monastery famous for its medieval frescoes. Today, the monastery draws tourists and Christians and Muslims committed to interreligious understanding. (photo: Armineh Johannes)

This morning we received word from our regional director in Beirut, Issam Bishara, that a monastery north of the Syrian capital of Damascus was ransacked by masked gunmen around 6 p.m. on 22 February.

Deir Mar Musa is home to religious men and women under the protection of Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III. The following is a press release from the monastery describing the events that transpired:

Events of Wednesday, 22 February 2012, at Deir Mar Musa el-Habashi

Wednesday evening at 6 p.m., the following happened:

Around 30 armed men — all, except their commander, had their face covered — stormed the monastery’s sheepfold, where some employees were dwelling. They turned the premises upside down, looking for weapons and money, and asking for the father in charge. One of the shepherds was forced to lead some of the armed persons to another part of the monastery. Four of the sisters, who were about to go to the prayer, were confined to a room under surveillance. Right after, some of the aggressors entered the church. The monastic community, gathered for meditation, reminded them that this was a place of prayer, and as such should be respected. The armed men forced the people present to assemble in a side aisle of the church. Then, they forcibly intercepted other persons at the monastery. They went on searching for weapons and money, but to no effect, destroying all means of communication they could find, but without causing any major damage.

During the aggression, the individual responsible for the group was taking photos with his mobile phone. After having permitted that the prayer goes on, he ordered the people present to remain in the church for an hour.

The superior of the monastery was in Damascus, and could not return before daybreak on Thursday.

It is noteworthy that those with authority among the armed persons declared straight away that they did not have the intention to harm the people present at the monastery, and in fact, they kept their word during the aggression.

Naturally, the question arises as to the identity of the armed group. At the moment, it seems impossible to give a definite answer. For sure, those men were familiar with weapons, seeking material interests. The reason why they were looking for weapons at a monastery that has been well known for years for its choice and promotion of nonviolence remains obscure.

We thank God for the protection of his angels, and we prayed during Mass for our aggressors and their families. In spite of these painful events, we did not lose our inner peace nor the desire to serve reconciliation.

Deir Mar Musa

Tags: Syria Damascus Syriac Catholic Church Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan

1 March 2012
Michael J.L. La Civita

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal and Father Emil Salayta of the Latin patriarchate toured CNEWA’s offices today. (photo: Erin Edwards)

“Peace cannot be obtained without justice and even without forgiveness,” said the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, at a conference in Washington, D.C., a few days ago.

“It’s not a question only of who’s right, who’s wrong. Forgiveness cannot be obtained without sacrifices, cannot be obtained without compromises. And I think peace is worth it to pay the price of sacrifice and compromise.”

To learn more about the conference, and the remarks of the patriarch, visit our news page.

Tags: Middle East Christians Jerusalem Middle East Patriarchs

9 February 2012
Michael J.L. La Civita

Residents inspect the damage inside St. Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church after a bomb attack in central Kirkuk, Iraq, 15 August. A parked car bomb and a motorcycle bomb killed one person and wounded 12 others in central Kirkuk, hospital and police sources said.
(photo: CNS / Ako Rasheed, Reuters)

This week’s cover story in the U.S. magazine Newsweek features a provocative, bloodstained image of Christ with the even more provocative tag line that reads, “The War on Christians.” Authored by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch activist, the article is laden with anecdotes about anti-Christian violence in the Muslim world.

“A wholly different kind of war is underway,” she writes, “an unrecognized battle costing thousands of lives. Christians are being killed in the Islamic world because of their religion. It is a rising genocide that ought to provoke global alarm.”

The author believes this war has been unreported or worse, ignored, by the mainstream media for fear of encouraging fear of Islam, or Islamophobia.

“But a fair-minded assessment of recent events and trends leads to the conclusion that the scale and severity of Islamophobia pales in comparison with the bloody Christophobia currently coursing through Muslim-majority nations from one end of the globe to the other,” she writes. “The conspiracy of silence surrounding this violent expression of religious intolerance has to stop. Nothing less than the fate of Christianity — and ultimately of all religious minorities — in the Islamic world is at stake.”

Wow. Surprising words for a self-proclaimed atheist with strong opinions about all religions, not just the Islamic faith of her ancestors.

No doubt, violence directed against Christians in the Muslim world has increased, particularly since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the pages of our bimonthly magazine, ONE, and on the news feed on our web site, CNEWA has covered the violence directed against Christians in the Middle East. Catholic media have also diligently reported on these events, as have the mainstream media, including The New York Times.

Last September, the conservative blog Catholic Culture reported on Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria, quoting Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos.

“At least 14 people have died in tribal clashes in central Nigeria in the early days of September [2011]. Although the violence has pitted Christians against Muslims, a Catholic bishop insists that religion is not the fundamental cause of the conflict,” the report begins.

“The violence began when Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan were attacked. Their assailants were described as Christians, but local church leaders did not recognize them. ‘I do not know who these people are and what denomination they belong to, ’ the archbishop said.

“In response to that attack, Muslims raided several Christian villages on Sunday and Monday. The bloodshed occurred around Jos, in the center of the country, where the mostly Muslim north meets the Christian south.

“Archbishop Kaigama said that the violence reflected a breakdown in overall security. ‘It is very convenient for those in authority to say that the whole crisis is about religion,’ he observed.

“ ‘Christians and Muslims are fighting. Yes, I don’t deny that,’ the archbishop continued. ‘But then, the factors that are fueling that crisis are not certainly only religions.’ He pointed to old tribal animosities, complaints about theft of cattle, and the influence of outside agitators.”

The archbishop is not denying Christian-Muslim violence. But unlike Ms. Hirsi Ali, he sees other forces at work, and believes there are factors unrelated to faith identity also fueling these hostilities. The same is true throughout the Arab world. These factors are socio-economic, political, tribal. And they are playing out in a culture beset by enormous change that even dictators cannot suppress.

“Islam is experiencing an identity crisis,” a colleague said during a recent editorial team meeting. And when a faith community experiences a crisis of identity, extremists act on their fears.

Is there a global Islamic conspiracy to create “pure” Muslim societies? If there is, which form of Islam? Sunni or Shiite? Sufi or Ibadhi? What about Alawi and Druze? As ONE magazine reported back in 2007, “the very nature of the Islamic faith, with its lack of a governing religious authority and reliance on group consensus for legitimization of Islamic identity, ensures that the continuing proliferation of splinter groups, large and small, is inevitable and will result in variations in doctrine and practice until the ‘last days.’ ”

To be sure, the author of the Newsweek piece admits no conspiracy exists: “No, the violence isn’t centrally planned or coordinated by some international Islamist agency. In that sense the global war on Christians isn’t a traditional war at all. It is, rather, a spontaneous expression of anti-Christian animus by Muslims that transcends cultures, regions, and ethnicities.” But pulling atrocities out of context, and ignoring that context, is irresponsible — as are misleading banners and headlines.

“News reporting” such as this does not contribute to the dialogue that is necessary if Christians and Muslims are going to continue to live together.

Tags: Middle East Christians Middle East Violence against Christians Holy Land Christian-Muslim relations

23 January 2012
Michael J.L. La Civita

In this photo from 2004, Jacqueline Ruyak visits a parish in eastern Pennsylvania while reporting for ONE magazine. (photo: Cody Christopulos)

Planning stories for our magazine has been one of my favorite activities since I joined CNEWA in 1989. The magazine has a broad mandate: to educate our audience (chiefly Roman Catholics in the West) about the churches, cultures, histories and peoples of the East. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many interesting people, authorities and journalists, whose interests extend from canon law to the arts.

Since 1993, Jacqueline Ruyak has graced our pages with stories gathered from obscure communities in Central Europe. I’ll never forget her first letter (years before email), sent from her remote home in northern Japan. She introduced herself and her interest in the people and the folk art of Central Europe, and would I be interested in discussing some story ideas from her next visit to Slovakia. It was handwritten, and dashed off as if in great haste, which would become her sign off on all correspondence that followed: “In haste, Jacqueline.” She intrigued me, and our first meeting — over copious cups of hot green tea — resembled what would become a fruitful and fun 20-year partnership.

No matter how inaccessible the village, or misunderstood the subject, Jacqueline was eager to take it on. She wrote about Hungary’s Greek Catholic gypsies (or Roma), and profiled the first Roma seminarian. She toured Slovakia’s Greek Catholic wooden churches, documenting a lost art and culture. She met with makers of Easter eggspysanky in Ukraine and kraslice in Slovakia — bakers and wire artisans, or tinkers. A vegetarian, she nevertheless wrote (and ate) about pork specialties as well as Ruthenian Lenten food specialties, providing recipes and anecdotes from a few kitchens in eastern Pennsylvania and eastern Slovakia. She profiled Greek Catholic village life and devotions, documenting a way of life that as we speak is disappearing.

Last week, our team here learned of the death of Jacqueline. She had left Japan some years ago and moved back to her eastern Pennsylvania homestead, where she died at the age of 65. Her death has left a hole in our hearts and in our pages: Who will run off to Kingston for that Rusyn nut roll recipe? Who will dash off to Hungary to profile that Serbian bishop? Who will spend all those hours with the village babushka, learning the secrets of pysanky or rolling out peroghi dough?

Jacqueline Ruyak was a unique gem, and she left us “in haste.” Requiescat in Pace.

Jacqueline, right, reports for ONE magazine in 2004. (photo: Cody Christopulos)

15 December 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

A 53-year-old Christian mother displays a photo of her son, who was killed in sectarian violence. (photo: Safin Hamed)

Today, after nine years of bloodshed and billions in spent resources, the United States has quietly and solemnly closed its war in Iraq. I will not debate the merits of this military venture, but the following statistics reveal the enormous human toll brought about by the invasion, occupation and the insurrection and sectarian strife that ensued:

Number of dead: about 151,000 Iraqi civilians, 4,777 coalition soldiers
Injured: about 30,000 coalition soldiers; statistics for the number of Iraqi civilians are unavailable
Refugees: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports more than 4.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes.

  • About 2.4 million are displaced within Iraq or live in the semiautonomous zone controlled by the Kurds.
  • Some 2.3 remain in a limbo-like exile in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or Egypt. Very few have found permanent asylum in the West.
  • The United Nations estimates that almost half of Iraq’s middle and professional classes have fled.
  • Three-quarters of Iraq’s Christian, Mandaean and Yazidi minorities have fled as well.

Since 1991, the pages of CNEWA’s magazine have covered the various crises in Iraq, especially the impact on the Christian communities there. Most recently, ONE featured the Christian community seeking refuge in historic Christian villages now under Kurdish control. In A New Genesis in Nineveh, reporter Namo Abdulla writes, “the Nineveh plains are among several disputed territories in northern Iraq. Iraqi Christians increasingly view the area as the future homeland for the country’s Christian community, and many now demand it become a semiautonomous region.”

For more than a millennia, Christians have lived side by side with Muslims in this land between the Tigris and the Euphrates — ancient Mesopotamia. A semiautonomous Christian region sounds ghetto-like, and hardly sustainable. But who knows what the future holds.

Between 1991 and 2010, CNEWA has provided more than $8.3 million in direct assistance to Iraqi needy, whether in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon or Syria. Some who have benefited from this assistance are Christians, and some are Muslims. All are in need and all have come to our attention by the local church and its army of sisters, priests and lay people.

Armed combat in Iraq may be over, but now the real work of healing Iraq’s people begins. Join CNEWA and the churches of the Middle East in helping to lift up their people. To learn how, click here.

Tags: Iraq War United States Occupied Territories

12 December 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

Cardinal John Patrick Foley greets a Syriac prelate in Lebanon on a fact-finding trip with members of CNEWA’s governing board in April 2010. (photo: Gabriel Delmonaco)

Early Sunday morning, I learned that a good friend of CNEWA and of the Catholic press, Cardinal John Patrick Foley, had died in Philadelphia after battling leukemia. He was 76, and just a few weeks shy of the golden jubilee of his priesthood.

For those of us in the trenches of the Catholic media, Cardinal Foley was like a godfather, a prelate with media credentials; he had a Master's in Journalism from the Columbia University School of Journalism, and was a longtime editor of the Catholic Standard and Times in Philadelphia. He understood us and sympathized with the challenges we faced as Catholics and as journalists. “We know as journalists,” he said, “that the more some people try to cover up bad news, the more likely it is to be known.”

For more than two decades, Cardinal Foley headed the Holy See’s social communications council, and perhaps he is best known for his commentary during the pope’s celebration of midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

I remember him best for his yearly trek to the annual convention of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. This ragged band of wounded warriors (well, some of us) were his colleagues and friends, and he made no attempt to hide the fact that this visit was a highlight on his very busy calendar. Though an archbishop, he did not preside at events or deliver key note addresses. Instead, he mingled with the gang — attending seminars, asking questions, grabbing minutes here and minutes there for a question or simply to tease. His presence was powerful.

His annual celebration of the Eucharist commemorating those colleagues who had died since the previous convention — and his excellent homilies at those liturgies — stand out. Whether in a convention hall or a 19th-century church, John Patrick Foley celebrated the Mass as one expected from a priest bred in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia: with reverence, thoughtfulness and care. His homilies always inspired, always brought laughs, always brought tears.

Despite my reluctance to hobnob with the famous and the titled, for 20 years this kind priest — Philly’s best — took the time to tell me how he read the magazine “cover to cover,” how he “always learned something new,” and urged me to keep pursuing excellence in Catholic publishing.

Last February, the cardinal retired to his beloved native city of Philadelphia after serving for four years as the grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. During his brief tenure as grand master, the cardinal reanimated the ancient chivalric order — which was founded to support the church in the Holy Land through the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem — by extending its mandate to include the support of Latin Catholic initiatives in Lebanon and Egypt.

In April 2010, the cardinal traveled to Lebanon and Syria on a fact-finding trip with members of CNEWA’s governing board, which included Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., of Ottawa and Archbishop Alexander Brunett, emeritus of Seattle, and the cardinal’s good friend and classmate, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, who then led CNEWA.

The group met with patriarchs and seminarians, refugees and farmers, needy children and religious superiors. “It was,” said CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon and Syria, Issam Bishara, “a whirlwind visit that benefited from the cardinal’s astute analysis, compassion, curiosity and wit.”

“The church in the Middle East,” said Msgr. Stern, “has lost a good friend. The church universal has lost a shepherd, a humble and prayerful giant.”

Tags: Lebanon Middle East Vatican Cardinal John P. Foley

9 December 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

A villager samples clean water from the new filtration system in Lebanon.
(photo: Marilyn Raschka)

“Water is the stuff of life,” Msgr. John Kozar wrote on this blog a few days ago. Traveling through Lebanon on his first visit as CNEWA’s president, Msgr. Kozar is observing firsthand how this modest-sized agency of the Holy See is reclaiming land, restoring families and reviving parishes simply by bringing the basics like water to a forlorn community.

Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90), CNEWA’s Beirut staff has worked tirelessly to resettle displaced families, revive abandoned villages and restore what has made Lebanon unique: A diverse mosaic, a home to all people, Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shi’ite. “Lebanon is more than a country,” Pope John Paul II said during his visit in 1997. “Lebanon is a message.”

In 2000, in the pages of our November issue of the magazine, writer Marilyn Raschka wrote about two neighboring villages in the Chouf region, just south of Beirut. Dmit is home to the Druze, a religious community that developed from Shi’ite Islam. Serjbal is a Christian farming community.

Historically, the two villages got on well, “feast days and funerals find villagers heading in each other’s directions for a respectful courtesy call,” writes Ms. Raschka. “But it’s water that will bring these two communities closer together, now that their pipe dreams have come true.”

Creating reservoirs, excavating trenches and laying irrigation pipe isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t even sound appropriate for an agency of the Holy See, but in Lebanon it reinforces what the Holy Father believes is that nation’s unique calling: to serve as a model of coexistence and love.

Tags: Lebanon Beirut Water

6 December 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

An 18th-century Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker
hangs in CNEWA’s New York offices.

Today, throughout the universal church, Christians celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, a reluctant bishop of the early church in Asia Minor. Before the Communists suppressed the Orthodox Church in Russia, St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker virtually dominated the popular piety of the nation. Countless churches were dedicated to him. Russian men, from the exalted tsar to the humblest peasant, honored him as their patron. A pious peasant asked to identify the Holy Trinity would, more often than not, mutter the names of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker. Icons of this trinity, enshrined in every Russian home, reinforced this understanding.

Devotion to the Wonder Worker has not been confined to Russia. England, Greece, Holland, Lorraine, Sicily and southern Italy all honor him as patron. And his influence has spread to the New World, where it has taken on new life, particularly among children during the Christmas season, who associate him with Santa Claus.

In 1997, I traveled to the Italian region of Puglia, home to my paternal ancestors. While there, I visited the basilica in the city of Bari that has housed his relics for more than 900 years. “Nowhere is the universal nature of St. Nicholas’s popularity more apparent than in the southern Italian city of Bari,” I wrote in our magazine in an article entitled “Bari’s Borrowed Wonder Worker.”

One Russian family caught my eye. The father watched his youngest child as his wife and daughters, their heads covered in colorful scarves, lighted candles, kissed icons, pressed their heads to the sacred images and prostrated themselves before the altar. Although they abstained from the Eucharist, this family and the other Orthodox pilgrims who were in attendance rushed to the iconostasis to receive the blessed bread and to be anointed with the holy myron, or oil, of St. Nicholas.

“In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence,” exclaims the Troparion for today’s feast. “Your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.”

Tags: Russia Greece Saints Christian Italy

1 December 2011
Michael J.L. La Civita

Tens of thousands gather for a vigil at the Cave Church of St. Simon the Tanner, near Cairo.

A headline in today’s The New York Times reads, “Egypt’s Christians Prepare for New Political Climate.” Judging by early reports, it appears the results from the country’s elections — which international observers state are by far the most open in decades — will favor the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group once banned by the former regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Coptic Christians make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million people and are by far the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Copts are fully engaged in Egyptian society — despite decades of discrimination. Torn between the relative stability offered by Mubarak and the necessity for democratic reform, Copts nevertheless played a role in bringing down Mubarak. Copts, too, have formed political parties they hope can influence the laws and governance of this strategically important nation. And they have rallied together to pray, reflect and repent.

According to materials sent by a retired Canadian diplomat, some 70,000 Copts —Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant — gathered for a 12-hour vigil in the Cave Church of St. Simon the Tanner on 11 November. Millions more followed the event live on satellite television and through the Internet. The Cave Church, which lies in the foothills of the Mokattam Mountains that overlook Cairo, is actually a network of churches and shrines carved out of the rock near a densely populated neighborhood that is home to the garbage pickers of Cairo, or zaballin.

“The prayer meeting that started at 6 p.m.,” read one report, “continued uninterrupted till 6 a.m. the following day. ... This was a significant event on multiple levels. It was the largest Christian gathering in the modern history of Egypt. It brought together for the first time all Christian denominations, Coptic Orthodox, Catholics and all branches of the Protestant and Evangelical churches.”

Prayers were offered for the “healing of the land and for God’s intervention to save the country from a disastrous famine as the Nile [river] is drying up at an alarming rate.

“The focal point of the gathering was repentance and forgiveness. The leaders of all the churches came together in unprecedented unity to lead thousands of people in worship and prayer for Egypt.”

Tags: Egypt Ecumenism Coptic Christians Democracy

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 |